Before we answer this question, let’s take a moment to reflect on how long prostitution has existed as a profession, and consider its legal status throughout human history. Why? Because I think it is amazing how much change has occurred in this area of the law, and how the laws on prostitution throughout our history have been affected by, and equally have affected, influenced, and shaped our society, culture, religion, and politics.

No, seriously! Let’s take a quick history lesson and I’ll show you what I mean. Don’t worry, I’ll answer your ‘friend’s’ question along the way.

My sources (Wikipedia) tell me that the earliest recorded mention of prostitution as an occupation appears in Sumerian records from around 2,400 B.C. That should justify its tag as the ‘world’s oldest profession’ or at least the world’s longest-running profession.

In ancient Greece and Rome, prostitution was a legitimate, and legal, form of business. Mainly because the governments at the time realised they could raise lots of revenue from the taxing of prostitution.

A rise in religion, and sexually transmitted diseases, during the Middle Ages saw prostitution suddenly made illegal, just like that. Any prostitute caught plying her trade was punished severely with prison time or even death. These laws were very one-sided; a male client of a prostitute, if caught, was at worst given a stern talking to and sent on his merry way. More often, though, he was given the 1600s equivalent of a high five by the police officer who caught the man with the prostitute.

These days, prostitution in Australia is a legal grey area, and there are differences in the way the law in each of our states and territories deal with and regulate it.

Before we get stuck into the current laws on prostitution, I need to make one thing very clear: this section is not trying to criticise, insult, or make fun of those who work in the sex industry. Researching this topic was very easy (and, just between you and me, quite enjoyable) because those who work in this industry are highly engaged, intelligent, and politically active. Either individually or through a representative body, sex workers regularly make detailed, impressive, and thought-provoking submissions to government and legal bodies about how best to reform the laws of prostitution and similar sexual-based professions and how the law can better protect those who work in these professions. Those lobbying for changes in the laws regulating the sex industry are better advocates for sensible, safe, and fair laws than most lawyers and politicians.

So, what are the current laws on prostitution in Australia?

New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory are relatively relaxed. They have legalised brothels as well as sexual services offered by private sex workers (these are the ones who advertise in the ‘personal’ section of your local newspaper). However, there are limits to these relaxed laws. It is illegal in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory to buy / rent / hire / borrow the services of two sex workers at once, and condoms are required in all cases.

Other states and territories are not so relaxed.

The Northern Territory has banned most forms of prostitution and sex work. Individuals are legally permitted to provide sex services but cannot employ anyone to work for (or with) them. Escort agencies are legal, if they are licensed, but brothels are illegal. Interestingly, escort agencies that are licensed can advertise their services within the Northern Territory, including on T-shirts, brochures in hotels, and signage at sporting and charity events. I guess this is fair enough – they are a legitimate business after all – but there are restrictions on exactly how and what they show or describe in those advertisements. A quick Google search on this topic will show you the creative ways that escort agencies advertise their services in the Northern Territory. It’s well worth a quick look. Perhaps not on your work computer though.

Tasmania takes much the same approach as the Northern Territory, although it was only relatively recently that its laws were relaxed and some forms of prostitution were legalised. Unlicensed brothels, soliciting sexual services on the street, and ‘back alley’ prostitution are all illegal in Tasmania.

Western Australia’s laws on prostitution are similar to Tasmania and the Northern Territory too. Street solicitation is illegal, and so is living on the proceeds of prostitution. This means that a sex worker and, potentially, his or her partner or children could all be committing an offence by using money obtained through sex work.

I expected Victoria, as the former gold-rush state, to have relatively few restrictions on prostitution. In one sense, this is true, with the state’s laws allowing brothels and sex workers to be licensed to sell sex services. However, it is (based on some informative discussions I had with a kind brothel owner in Melbourne) apparently very hard to obtain and maintain this kind of licence, which means most sex workers in Victoria operate illegally. Street soliciting is illegal, without exception.

South Australia makes almost every form of sex work illegal. Even the very limited forms of legal prostitution or sex work come with some nasty tricks and traps, like the fact that a brothel is legal in South Australia but visiting one for the purpose of paying for sex is not. You know South Australia’s laws on prostitution are old-fashioned when these laws still use phrases like ‘bawdy-house.’

Finally, in Queensland, sex services are legal, provided they are conducted in a private residence or in a licensed brothel, and are one-on-one. Every other form of prostitution or sex service is illegal. Also, on a strict reading of the law, it is illegal to act as an accountant or lawyer for a prostitute or brothel owner, so just to be on the safe side I want to note, once again, that this is not legal advice, merely some of my own observations! Take that, Queensland police.

So, what do we learn from all this? (1) People are prepared to pay for sex. (2) Others are prepared to offer and provide sex for payment. (3) The law on both sides of this transaction has changed over time, with Australia’s laws being incredibly inconsistent across the various states and territories. (4) I am prepared to write 1,126 words on how you can legally pay for sex.

Finally, I highly recommend you – sorry, your friend – take some time to read the Scarlett Alliance website, if you / your friend wants more information on the legality of prostitution or would like to read some very interesting and well written commentary pieces on the state of Australia’s sex laws from those in the profession. Check it out at http://www.scarletalliance.org.au.